A Facebook Book

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Katherine Losse had achieved a major coup for an English major.  Instead of using her degree to descend into the secure confines of monopoly public education, she found herself as the 51st employee of a California start-up known as Facebook.   Initially a low-paid, customer support employee, she rose through the ranks to working on the international team that introduced Facebook to other countries, and then as a close assistant of the firm’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg himself.

As she notes in her book The Boy Kings: A Journey into the Social Network, it wasn’t all a happy time.  While Facebook initially appealed to Losse on its promise in expanding and deepening human connections to a society that increasingly discarded them—which, incidentally, simply reflects incentives created by the expanding redistributist state—she soon began to question the enterprise as it tended to encourage the vainest connections over everything.

If you disagree, then ask yourself:  Would you redefine friendship as Facebook friendship?

Although many people clearly do use Facebook with great success to promote their interests and careers, and while many families and friends use its platform to maintain connections that would otherwise fizzle, the economics of Facebook suggest that it is mostly the domain of high schoolers and retirees, of people out of the labor force due to minimum wage laws, ridiculous expansions of government disability and unemployment benefits, or pension-based incentives.  When discussing this aspect of Facebook in my economics classes (in the context of time costs), I often note the news story from earlier this year describing Facebook’s oldest user, a 105-year-old grandmother, usually followed by the joke, “She wants to waste what little time she has left.”

It’s that waste that came to bother Losse the most during her time working for Facebook in Palo Alto and, later, Menlo Park, from September 2005 to the spring of 2010.  She found Facebook appealing to people who connect more easily with others digitally than in real life, or who find a bigger thrill in watching other people live at the expense of living rich, unplugged lives themselves.

In the beginning, however, Facebook offered her a decent opportunity for someone with a non-technical skill set in Silicon Valley where she helped resolve user disputes and spamming attempts, all while answering questions like, “What does poking mean?”

As Facebook grew, so did the social divisions within the firm, and it is here that Boy Kings is most disappointing.  Whether conscious of it or not, Losse’s explanations are quasi-Marxist, tinged by the angst toward the injustice that no matter how hard she worked, she still comprised the lower paying segment of Facebook’s payroll, while her colleagues in engineering working equally hard were paid much better, often frittering away money that Losse would have packed away to help pay her Bay-area rent.

Had Losse studied economics in college, she might have decided the bigger injustice is the malinvestment in human capital that results when government pushes students into degrees less demanded by labor markets.  Economists call this government failure and it explains why the additional productivity and (by extension) the additional revenue Losse could offer Facebook were somewhat less than those offered by the more technically minded.

Thankfully, Losse does not dwell ad nauseum on such injustices in Boy Kings, and instead focuses on the false intimacy that is often the appeal of the Internet and of Facebook in particular.  Toward the end of the book, Losse describes a weekend Rock Band session at Facebook’s headquarters in which she and two friends participated, broadcasted live with real-time comments displayed on the wall of the company game room.  She writes:

“The fans watching us on the Internet were perplexed to see me there, since another rule of the Internet states that there are no girls on the Internet, and they proceeded from questioning my gender or even my existence, to telling me [their sexually-explicit desires].  This was standard Internet behavior, and I barely blushed, though it seemed a bit violent, in a virtual way, much like the Internet itself.  People will and do say anything online because they can.  Thrax and Emile were unperturbed, barely registering the curse words flowing at us through the screen, since this was the way the Internet was.  …  Like the boys in their rooms in distant states, we were safe here five floors above Palo Alto, connected by wires and to worlds we would never see.

“Later that afternoon, I walked the few blocks to my apartment.  As I was cooking dinner, with my laptop open on the kitchen table, my screen was still tuned in to the game room in the office, the boys were still playing, and the watchers were still watching, throwing insults and questions at the screen as Rock Band songs started and stopped, chords scrolling endlessly to infinity.  I closed the laptop and drove to San Francisco to meet friends and go out, in real life.”

Craving real life eventually led Losse to sell her highly leveraged Facebook stock options and settle down as a writer in Marfa, Texas, with peace of mind and a clear conscience.  Since then, this establishment-connected firm has been exposed as something of an adjunct of the National Security Agency, making many wonder what trade-offs Zuckerberg made in exchange for his billionaire status.

Not bad for an English major, I’d say.

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